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Walmart drops mask requirements for vaccinated shoppers and employees

The retailer joins Costco and Trader Joe’s in easing restrictions after a shift in CDC guidelines.

Walmart, the country's largest retailer, will no longer require vaccinated shoppers or employees to wear masks at its U.S. stores. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
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Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, said it will stop requiring masks for fully vaccinated customers and employees, joining Costco and Trader Joe’s in easing store mandates after a contentious change in national guidelines.

The retailers’ decision comes a day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks in most situations. Workers unions blasted the policy change, saying it creates confusion and puts store employees at increased risk of getting sick.

Walmart announced its policy change in a memo to employees Friday, but noted that its 5,300 U.S. stores will continue to abide by local and state mask mandates. Unvaccinated shoppers and employees should continue wearing masks, the company said, though it did not offer details on how it would confirm whether customers have been inoculated. It also encouraged all employees to get vaccinated, and said it would give $75 to those who did.

“These are positive developments,” the company, which also owns Sam’s Club, said in the memo. “We can do this. We’ve been through a lot this year, and now we need to do our part to finish this.”

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But other major retailers, including Target, Home Depot, CVS and Harris Teeter, say they will continue to require masks in store as they review new CDC guidance and reevaluate store policies.

The Retail Industry Leaders Association said the CDC’s revised guidelines conflict with some state and local orders, creating ambiguity for retailers and their employees.

“We urge all retail customers and guests to follow a store’s safety protocols including wearing a mask and social distancing,” Lisa LaBruno, a senior executive vice president for the trade group, said in a statement. “Frontline workers deserve this respect. Retailers encourage customers that do not want to wear a mask to shop online or via curbside pickup offerings.”

The United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, said the CDC’s guidance fails to consider the impact on essential workers “who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks.” More than 200 retail workers have died of the coronavirus, and thousands more have been infected, according to workers groups and media reports, though actual numbers are probably much higher.

“Vaccinations are helping us take control of this pandemic, but we must not let our guard down,” Marc Perrone, the union’s president, said in a statement. “Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”

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Mask usage has become an increasingly heated issue during the pandemic, sometimes resulting in store workers being berated, even assaulted, by anti-maskers. Although most retailers have explicit rules requiring face coverings, employees say they are generally discouraged from enforcing those policies.

CVS, for example, has signs promoting mask use and instructs employees to ask — but not require — shoppers to wear face coverings, according to spokesman Joe Goode. “For safety reasons, our employees are directed to avoid escalated confrontations with noncompliant customers, and to instead help them complete their purchases as quickly as possible,” he said.

The rapid spread of covid-19 in the United States began in early 2020. A lot has changed in our day-to-day lives since then, including the use of face masks. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

The easing of mask mandates at stores such as Walmart are likely to add complications, workers said. Costco and Trader Joe’s both said Friday they would allow fully vaccinated shoppers to enter stores without face coverings, but noted they will not require proof of vaccination. A spokeswoman for Trader Joe’s said stores will continue to adhere to most other covid-related policies, including face coverings for employees, social distancing rules and frequent store cleanings.

“We are vigilant; reviewing federal, state and local health advisories; meeting or exceeding government mandates; and where it makes sense, adjusting efforts,” the company said on its website.

Anthony Simkins, 30, a cashier at a pharmacy chain in Plymouth, N.H., says he’s had frequent run-ins with customers who refuse to wear masks during the pandemic. And though his company will continue to require facial coverings, he fears the CDC’s relaxed guidelines will result in more shoppers coming in without them, putting Simkins — who has yet to receive his first dose of the vaccine — at a higher risk of getting sick.

“We can offer masks to those without them, but cannot force them to be worn,” he said.

Some shoppers, too, said the changes make them hesitant to frequent certain stores, or take their unvaccinated children along for errands.

Phil Belongia, 41, a father of three in Racine, Wis., says he is rethinking where he shops. He is fully vaccinated, but his three young children, who often accompany him on trips to Walmart or Target, do not yet qualify.

“It will definitely change where I stop, or where we stop, depending on if the kids are with me,” he said, adding that he plans to continue wearing a mask. “It’d be great if everyone actually followed the recommendations, but I don’t fully trust people.”